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Stephen Leacock
A Biographical Sketch

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The following biographical account of Stephen Leacock's life represents a general synthesis of several biographers' work: Ralph Curry's Stephen Leacock: Humorist and Humanist (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959); Robertson Davies's Stephen Leacock (Canadian Writers, no. 7. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970. pp. 7-17); James Doyle's Stephen Leacock: The Sage of Orillia (Toronto: ECW Press, 1992); David Legate's Stephen Leacock: A Biography (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1978).

Stephen Butler Leacock was born on December 30, 1869, at Swanmore, Hampshire, England, the third of a family of eleven children. His parents were Peter Leacock and Agnes Emma Butler. Peter was 18 and Agnes 22 when they were secretly married on New Year's Day in 1867. The Leacocks and the Butlers had had a long-standing friendship and Peter and Agnes had spent holidays together since infancy. Peter was charming and witty but irresponsible and shiftless, Agnes intelligent and polished. The Leacocks and the Butlers were both well-to-do families. The Leacocks were known as a family in the wine trade. Peter's family was comfortably established in their Oak Hill home on the Isle of Wight. The Butlers, of a distinguished background, had lived in their Bury Lodge home in Hampshire for more than 150 years. Agnes's father was an Anglican minister.

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From the time of Agnes and Peter's marriage, the couple and their growing family continually moved from one place to another. Peter tried his hand at farming in Maritzburg (South Africa) and again in Kansas but constantly failed. The Leacock family emigrated to Canada in 1876 and settled on a 100-acre farm just a few miles south of Lake Simcoe near the village of Sutton, Ontario. In his unfinished autobiography, The Boy I Left Behind Me, Leacock said that "our farm with its buildings was, I will say, the damnedest place I ever saw" (p. 58). Stephen, and his ten brothers and sisters, had a strenuous life on the farm. He remembered, for example, the stench of the barns and the stables, the one tallow candle to study by at night, and, on winter nights, the freezing cold of the house.

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Agnes Leacock was dissatisfied with the school her children attended (School Section No. 3) and decided to teach the children herself until a private tutor, Harry Park, was engaged. Despite the hardships and the financial difficulties, she was determined to give her children the best education possible.

In the fall of 1878, Peter's brother, E.P. Leacock, visited the farm and convinced Peter to go to Manitoba. Agnes, in the meantime, was left behind with the children. In 1881, the eldest children, Jim and Dick, enrolled at Upper Canada College in Toronto, and a year later Stephen followed. Stephen was a better than average student. He even became joint editor and chairman of the Publishing Committee of the school paper, The College Times, from 1886 to1887. Stephen's brothers left the school in 1884. Jim joined the Northwest Mounted Police and Dick went out West to join his uncle E.P. Leacock.

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Stephen graduated as Head Boy from Upper Canada College in 1887. He returned to the farm to find that his father was back from the West, penniless and drinking more and more. During the summer, Peter Leacock came across some money and announced that he was leaving again, with no mention of where he was going and when he would be coming back. Peter never came back.

With Stephen's brothers too far away to be of any assistance, Agnes Leacock relied more and more on her third son to provide the strength and support she needed to keep the family going. Even though the family was having a hard time financially, Stephen entered the University of Toronto in the fall of 1887 as a full-time student. Awarded a small scholarship, he studied modern and classical languages as well as literature. He was very diligent in his studying and was able to complete two years of study in one. Because Leacock's mother needed some financial assistance to help raise the eight children still at home, he could not return to the university. In 1888, he enrolled in a three-month training course at the Strathroy Collegiate Institute in western Ontario to qualify for teaching high school. During his training, an event occurred that would remain with him all his life. One day when the principal of the Institute, James Wetherell, was teaching an English lesson, Leacock was asked to take over. He was very good at mimicking people's voices and mannerisms and taught the lesson as if he himself were Wetherell. Everyone laughed but the principal. From this incident Leacock learned a very valuable lesson, "the need for human kindliness as an element in humour" (The Boy I Left Behind Me, p. 160).

After his training, Leacock was able to find a teaching position as a modern-language teacher at Uxbridge High School in Uxbridge, Ontario. In 1889 he was offered a position as junior language master at Upper Canada College. Leacock loved this offer because it would give him a chance to continue his studies, at least on a part-time basis, at the University of Toronto. With the help of his uncle, E.P. Leacock, he was able to find a teacher to replace him at Uxbridge. He taught at Upper Canada College from February 1889 until July 1899. He disliked the limitations of a schoolmaster. He felt that school teaching was "a dead end into which young men were trapped by the initial chance to make what looked like a good salary, but which lost its gloss as middle age approached, so that the aging teacher was a pitiable creature, short of cash and held in low esteem by the community" (Davies, Stephen Leacock, p. 15). Leacock resumed his university studies on a part-time basis and obtained his honours B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1891. He also received a promotion on the staff at Upper Canada College, becoming housemaster.

During the 1890s, Leacock, in order to supplement his income, began submitting articles to various magazines. His first humorous article was published in the Toronto humour magazine Grip in 1894. Leacock continued to publish humorous sketches in many magazines (e.g., the New York periodicals Truth and Life). As a writer, he attained early success.

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Leacock's real interest, however, was in the field of economics and political science. While studying on his own, he came across The Theory of the Leisure Class, a book written by Thorstein Veblen. Influenced by this reading, he decided to pursue graduate studies under Veblen and was accepted at the University of Chicago in 1899.

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On August 7, 1900, Leacock married Beatrix (Trix) Hamilton. She was the daughter of Colonel R.B. Hamilton, a Toronto businessman, and was also related to the famous Pellatt family of Toronto. Beatrix spent many summers at her family's cottage on Lake Simcoe near Leacock's. Since the mid-1890s, Leacock had spent most of his summers in Orillia where his mother had bought a house. At the time of their marriage, Beatrix was an aspiring professional actress.

In his third year at the University of Chicago, Leacock accepted a position at McGill University as a special lecturer in political science and history. In 1903 he finished his dissertation "The Doctrine of Laissez-faire" and received his Ph.D. magna cum laude. Leacock believed that "the meaning of this degree [was] that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him" ("Preface" in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, p. IX). He was hoping to teach at the University of Toronto but it was not meant to be. Instead, he obtained a position as a full-time assistant professor at McGill University in 190?.

Leacock began public lecturing in 1905. He gave six lectures, primarily on the subject of the British Empire, under the patronage of the May Court Club. In 1906 his first book, Elements of Political Science, was published. It became a standard university textbook for 20 years and was translated into 19 languages. Elements of Political Science was Leacock's most profitable book during his lifetime. In 1907, Earl Grey, Canada's Governor General, asked Leacock to do a lecture tour on behalf of the Cecil Rhodes Trust. Leacock took a one-year leave of absence from McGill and undertook a speaking tour of the British Empire to promote imperial unity.

Leacock was appointed to full professor at McGill University in 1908. He was also appointed William Dow Professor of Political Economy and chair of the Department of Economics and Political Science. He held this position until his retirement 30 years later. With a group of eleven colleagues he founded the University Club of Montreal. In the spring of the same year he bought 33 acres of waterfront property a few miles from Orillia on the southwest side of Lake Couchiching. He called this property "The Old Brewery Bay."

With the financial assistance of his brother George, Leacock published in 1910 his first humorous book, Literary Lapses, which was a compilation of his best previously published writings. The book sold out quickly. John Lane, a British publisher, loved the book so much that he bought the rights to publish it. Literary Lapses helped propel Leacock to become known as one of the most sought-after authors in the English-speaking world. In 1911 Leacock followed up his success with Nonsense Novels, parodies of some of the most popular genres of literature. With his growing success, he bought a house in Montreal near the University, which was situated at the top of Côte-des-Neiges Road.

In 1912 Leacock published his literary masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. This book, based partly on his many summers spent in Orillia and on his own childhood experiences, was very popular in Canada, the United States, and England. Two years later, he published Arcadian Adventures With The Idle Rich, in which he sharply satirized city life. These two books "suggest Leacock's preference for the 'home town' he freely chose to spend his idyllic summers in, over the city to which he was committed out of professional necessity" (A Critical Edition - Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, pp. 154-155).

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On the academic side, Leacock, with the help of Dr. J.C. Hemmeon, a departmental associate, founded in 1913 the Political Economy Club at McGill University. On August 19, 1915, Leacock's only child, Stephen Lushington, was born. Even with his son's birth, Leacock did not lighten his workload. He continued doing speaking tours in Canada and the United States, where he read from some of his most popular publications to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund.

He published, for example, Further Foolishness and Essays and Literary Studies in 1916. In 1921 he was a founding member of the Canadian Authors' Association. In the same year he also gave a series of speeches in the United Kingdom. In 1922 he published My Discovery of England, which is considered to be one of his best books.

In the meantime, Beatrix was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Leacock did not want to admit defeat and took her to see a specialist, Dr. Blair Bell, in Liverpool, England. Unfortunately, nothing could be done for her and her health deteriorated. Beatrix died on December 15, 1925. Following her death, Leacock contributed generously to cancer research and committed himself to fundraising drives. He also spoke whenever he could on the subject of cancer. He kept his sorrow private and returned to his routine of writing, teaching, and public speaking. He took a great interest in his son's glandular malfunction, which caused the boy to be undersized for his age. Until the end of his life, Leacock was excessively concerned about his son.

In 1927, Leacock invited his niece, Barbara Ulrichson, to be a kind of secretary-housekeeper for him in Montreal and to help look after his son. She held this position until 1937, when she married Donald Nimmo. She eventually became Leacock's literary executor. There was also another friendship that was important to Leacock: Mrs. H.T. (Fitz) Shaw. She had been a close intimate of Beatrix. Even after Beatrix's death, Leacock remained close friends with Mrs. Shaw for many years, greatly valuing her opinions.

In 1928, the cottage at Old Brewery Bay was demolished and Leacock replaced it with a 19-room summer house which included a wine cellar and a billiard room. This house now serves as a museum: the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home.

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In the 1930s, Leacock wrote more and spoke more on economics and political issues, publishing in the spring of 1930 Economic Prosperity in the British Empire.

Leacock wrote two biographies of which he was proud: Mark Twain, published in 1932 and Charles Dickens, His Life and Work, in 1933. In 1935, he published Humour: Its Theory and Technique. Leacock loved experimenting and, in 1934, he tried the radio as a new medium for reaching a wider audience. This venture was not successful. He realized that what worked for him when reading his work or giving speeches did not work over the radio.

In 1934, his beloved mother, Agnes Leacock, died. A few years later, on May 31, 1936, because of compulsory retirement at the age of 65, Leacock retired from teaching at McGill University. Not ready for retirement, he put up a fight, but the board of governors would not budge on their decision. Despite his forced retirement, other universities were more than willing to hire him, but he decided to concentrate on his literary career. The years following his retirement were his busiest yet. During the fall of 1936 Leacock went on his last speaking tour, which was in the west of Canada. Through the compilation of notes and speeches made on this month-long journey, he published My Discovery of the West: A Discussion of East and West in Canada, for which he won the Governor General's Award. In the ensuing years, Leacock wrote books on many Canadian topics, including Canada: The Foundations of Its Future (1941); Montreal: Seaport and City (1942); and Canada and the Sea (1944).

Stephen Leacock Jr. graduated from McGill University with a B.A. in 1940. In the same year, Leacock's father died. Peter Leacock, who had left his family in 1887, had never tried to have contact again with his wife or children. He eventually went to the maritime provinces and changed his name to Lewis, settling in Nova Scotia's south shore with his common-law wife.

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Leacock published My Remarkable Uncle in 1942. The title sketch was based on his father's brother, E.P. Leacock, for whom Leacock held a fascination during his childhood. In the fall of 1943, Leacock started to work on his autobiography and on another book posthumously published as, Last Leaves. Unfortunately, his health was beginning to fail. He was soon diagnosed with throat cancer. He died on March 28, 1944, in a Toronto hospital. In 1945, two of his books were published: Last Leaves and While There Is Time: The Case Against Social Catastrophe. His unfinished autobiography, The Boy I Left Behind Me, was published in 1946.


The "Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour" has been awarded yearly since 1947 to the best humorous book by a Canadian author. A decade after Leacock's death, McGill University named the new addition to the Old Arts building after him. Moreover, the university established a Leacock Room in the Redpath Library. In March 1956, there was a hotel named after him, Stephen Leacock Hotel, on the lakeshore at Couchiching Beach Park. The following year, the town of Orillia purchased the Stephen Leacock home for $25 000. On July 5, 1958, the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home was opened to the public and declared a historic site.

In June 1968, Stephen Leacock's home at Old Brewery Bay was declared a national monument by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. To mark the centenary of Leacock's birth the Government of Canada, issued on November 12, 1969, a six-cent stamp in his honour. A month later, a 150-acre park on the northeast shore of Lake Simcoe was named after Stephen Leacock. In May 1970, the Government of Ontario organized a commemorative ceremony at Swanmore, Hampshire, and a plaque was placed on the house where Leacock was born. A few months later, a mountain in the Yukon's Saint Elias range was named after him. Swanmore Hall was opened on June 17, 1994, not only as a center of archival research but also as a center for visitors. The same year, on June 26, the Old Brewery Bay was designated as a National Historic Site by the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board. In 1998, 94 years after its submission to the University of Chicago, Leacock's Ph.D. dissertation, "The Doctrine of Laissez-faire," was published by the University of Toronto Press.

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